Freshlyground’s energetic performance at the Jazz Cafe on Sunday had the crowd jumping like teenagers at Glastonbury. Songs such as ‘Nomvula’, ‘I’d Like’, and ‘The Man Moves’, ending with 2010 World Cup hit ‘Waka Waka’ had us singing, dancing and clapping from the balcony to the front row.
Having performed for their first time in Edinburgh, South African band Freshlyground kicked off their two-week European tour with consecutive gigs at London’s famous Jazz CafÃ© in Camden over the weekend.
Although less packed than on Saturday, Sunday evening saw the band celebrate lead singer Zolani Mahola’s birthday, with an energetic performance that had the crowd jumping like teenagers at Glastonbury.
The band, started by two employees at Exclusive Books in Cape Town, hired Zolani after an impromptu solo at a gig in 2002, and now includes members from South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Known for chart-topping singles such as ‘Doo Be Doo’, they recently released two new albums, Take Me To The Dance, and The Legend.
Freshlyground famously worked with iconic Colombian singer-songwriter Shakira to produce the catchy World Cup song and made international headlines again when they were recently refused entry into Zimbabwe to perform at the Harare International Festival of the Arts, allegedly because of their musical parody of Robert Mugabe, ‘Chicken to Change’. Many of their songs contain strong political undertones, and the band is heavily influenced by the values of liberty espoused by Nelson Mandela.
Their Afro-fusion musical style, with hints of Jazz and Kwela, harmonises a plethora of sounds, from the African mbira to the saxophone, to the energy of Zolani’s voice. To get the full package you have to see them dance, play their instruments, cheer one another on and ultimately, have a great time. Their smiles say it all.
They performed hits from some of their past and present albums, such as ‘Nomvula’, ‘I’d Like’, and ‘The Man Moves’, ending with the 2010 World Cup hit ‘Waka Waka’, and had the Jazz CafÃ© dancing, singing, jumping and clapping, from the balcony to the front row. Even the bar staff couldn’t help themselves.
At the end of the show, although obviously exhausted from 90 minutes of giving it everything, the band was kind enough to spare a few minutes for a short interview.
They also made their way through the audience and thanked the fans, shaking hands and taking photographs in a gesture that concluded a fun evening.
Praise must also be given to support act Haiki, who, with clarity and audaciousness, performed a soulful mix of jazz and blues, perched on a raised stool with her acoustic guitar. Backed up by piano man Phil Edwards, she drew the crowd to the stage and, by the end, had managed to get them singing along. Haiki, born in Ethiopia, performs in and around London, and is singing at the Cambridge Rock Festival on 9 August.
Freshlyground now make their way to Germany and across Europe, before heading back to South Africa in August. Zolani is a natural born star, and the band is bound to produce some exciting music in times to come.
The interview, with lead-singer Zolani Mahola, violinist Kyla-Rose Smith and drummer Peter Cohen:
You’ve just kicked off your two week European tour. How was your first time performing in Edinburgh and how has this year at Jazz CafÃ© compared to your previous years here?
Zolani: It was lots of fun! The last time we played in Edinburgh it wasn’t at the Jazz Festival hey?
Kyla-Rose: We’d never been to Edinburgh before.
Zolani: Haven’t we? Really? Oh sorry! It’s a hallucination, my goodness.
Kyla-Rose: It was a very different audience in Edinburgh, again it was more of a sit-down theatre, you know, a kind of discerning audience who were there to listen to music. Abdullah Ibrahim was on the bill as well, which was really a great honour to share the stage with such a South African music legend. This is more of a club atmosphere, a smaller venue, which I think we always kind of enjoy more. As you say it’s about the live show and we get a lot of energy in a live show from the audience.
Your live performance is very different compared to your recorded music. It’s clear you make your music for a live audience. Did you choose to do that or did it just happen?
Zolani: The way it began was, it was always about the live show. And I think that the way we started recording or the way we started shaping our music was sort of by accident and wasn’t necessarily meant to happen that way. We got involved in a competition called the Battle of the Bands in 2001 or something, which made us sound more concise and work on our whole outfit. But it’s always been the live thing.
(At this point Zolani had to leave and Peter arrived).
I’ve heard a bit about where you guys come from. Can you tell me a bit about how you came together?
Kyla-Rose: Our original guitarist and keyboard player, both of whom are no longer in the band, were working at Exclusive Books in Cape Town, and they kind of struck up a friendship over music and started jamming together over the course of a year. Then the keyboard player convinced Simon, who had been playing music all of his life and gone to Manchester to study classical music, and then had been to UCT and stopped playing, to pick up his mbira and join the band. Then Zolani did an impromptu song at a gig, and Josh joined, and it was just kind of, it wasn’t really planned, you know.
Given your diverse music and national backgrounds, is it difficult to bring your styles together as you do?
Peter: We’ve been together for twelve years so I think we’re quite experienced now, and it probably looks quite easy but we have worked hard to find our rhythm and our sound.
You have played together with some big names, who has been a favourite?
Peter: Oliver Mtukudzi. He’s a Zimbabwean musician and we play together in Zimbabwe. We played one of his songs with him, his song called Todii, it was a highlight for me in terms of collaboration.
I have to ask, how was it working with Shakira?
Kyla-Rose: It was an amazing moment in our career, it was quite a surreal thing flying to LA to shoot a video with Shakira, and we never thought that would happen.
What, if any, event has been the greatest influence on your music?
Peter: I think as South Africans, the greatest event has been, and it was before we got together, but I think we’re all very influenced by Nelson Mandela. Freedom, one man one vote.
You have a political undertone in some of your songs, is there any sort of particular message that you try to put out with your music?
Kyla-Rose: It sounds really corny, but I think fundamentally we are sending a message of love, and bringing people together, one spirit, and I think that’s something that being South African has taught us and something we have to give to the rest of the world. I mean, if you look at what’s going on today, in Gaza, Ukraine, and Syria, and, you know, places that could do with a little bit of acceptance of others.
Do you think you guys will ever go back to Zim?
Kyla-Rose: With His Majesty’s permission.
Peter: We’re happy to go back to Zim as soon as they let us.
Have you got any gigs coming up in Cape Town when you get back?
Peter: We don’t work that much in Cape Town. If we’re not travelling we’re dead.
Kyla-Rose: Cape Town’s so small, you know, there are only so many places you can play.